Squatter Jobs Plan Represents a New Approach

After puzzling over how to find workers for his new palm oil plantation near Sihanoukville, businessman Mong Reththy believes he has a solution that will not only end his labor shortage but also help relocate squatters.

The plan now in the works will take several hundred families living in squalid slums on Phnom Penh’s riverbanks, roadsides and railway tracks, and transplant them to a field inside the plantation. New wooden homes, garden plots and jobs—all courtesy of the Mong Reththy Import Export Co—will await them.

It is the first time the municipality and private sector have worked together to resettle the thousands of squatters living in the city, and both sides have enthusiastically embraced the experiment.

“There is only one way to help people,” Mong Reththy said in an interview Thursday. “You must build them houses, find them jobs, set up medical care and water systems. This is the way to help people and it is a good choice for development.”

Others who have worked ex­tensively with resettlement issues and squatter community representatives, however, are more cautious.

“The project is a good idea but the process is different,” said Lim Phai, director of the Urban Sector Group which works with relocation issues. “I think it is a good idea if this project is discussed with people first [to] test their feelings. Something that has not a lot of participation will not last long.”

Mong Reththy’s 3,557-hectare palm oil plantation lies on the border of Sihanoukville and Koh Kong province—85 km from Sihanoukville, 160 km from Phnom Penh. On the site where the entrepreneur’s dream community will sit, construction has begun on 50 wooden houses, each sitting on a 20 meter by 25 meter plot of land.

The company plans to build an additional 450 houses if the first phase is successful, a company representative said. The houses, built side by side in neat rows, will later be joined by a school, a market and a health clinic. Electricity and clean water also will be provided. Mong Reththy said everything could be completed by early next year.

Municipal officials and Mong Reththy insist the scheme is entirely voluntary. Squatter community representatives will take names of people who request to move, and the trial stage of resettlement will start as soon as the houses are finished, expected to by the end of the year.

Financing is still a problem. Mong Reththy is paying for the houses, which will cost $800 each, and for the roads, which will cost several hundred dollars, a company representative said. The firm is hoping that additional funds will come from donors such as the World Bank or Asian Development Bank.

“I think if international NGOs could help the municipality and my company it would be helpful to the people and increase the speed of development,” Mong Reththy said.

The nature of the project means that residents’ livelihoods become tied to the Mong Reththy company. They will work in the plantation and in the palm oil processing factory that will be built on the farm, explained Sok Leakhana, the municipality’s deputy cabinet director. When no work is available in the factory—which may be up to 24 days a month— residents will then make their livings by growing vegetables on the two hectares of land given to each family by Mong Reththy. The company has stipulated, however, that anything grown on the land must be sold to the plantation. Those familiar with the project called the prices fair.

Municipal officials interviewed this week expressed satisfaction with the plan. They see this relocation as quicker than others that have been attempted and think it could be a model for other private-public sector projects.

“I believe that this is a progressive idea in terms of development,” said Kry Peng Hong, a Phnom Penh deputy governor who overseas relocation issues.

There have been several previous attempts to relocate families living in the estimated 300 squatter communities in Phnom Penh, but results have been mixed.

In 1992, the Irish aid organization Concern attempted to resettle squatters in Kob Srou village on Route 5, north of Phnom Penh, said Lim Phai. But the site lacked health facilities, jobs and flooded during the rainy season. The residents, he recalled, finally just moved away.

Then in 1996, the municipality began a resettlement project in Tuol Sbou village, about 20 km south west of Phnom Penh. However, potential residents who were brought to the site didn’t like it, mainly because of the distance from the city.

The latest project is underway in the capital’s Meanchey district. The municipality has donated land that could eventually house 129 families. Four model homes have been built at the site and its future residents will be taken out to look at the models next week, said officials at the Phnom Penh Urban Poor Communities and Municipality Development Project. The squatters will then build the houses themselves with bank loans.

The Mong Reththy relocation project would appear to have many of the advantages that other failed or stalled relocation projects have lacked. Basic services and jobs will be provided, unlike in Kob Srau, and some private financing from Mong Reththy will make sure the project gets off the ground.

Lim Phai said his biggest doubt lies in the manner in which the project has proceeded. The location had already been chosen and construction begun on houses before community representatives were shown the site.

But he also believes it may be difficult to draw people to the countryside who have become adapted to an urban lifestyle. “It’s a good initiative,” he said, “but the process may be problematic.”

Michael Slingsby, the chief technical adviser to the Phnom Penh Urban Poor Communities and Municipality Development Project, said similar projects had been attempted successfully in Malaysia and Indonesia, and Mong Reththy’s plan appeared to be based on those models.

Slingsby called it a “good idea” provided it is not presented as the only option available to those living in the city’s squatter communities.

The plus side of project, Slingsby said, is the employment opportunity but he said that the same benefit can be a detractor. “You’re tied to one employer, so you don’t have much bargaining power.”

On Monday, 15 community representatives got their first look at the site while visiting the plantation as part of a delegation led by Mong Reththy and Phnom Penh First Deputy Governor Chea Sophara. Their reaction was mixed.

Rather than concern over its isolation, or construction of houses without the input of the squatter groups, the main problem with the plan, said several of the squatter community representatives, is that the houses and land remain under the ownership of the Mong Reththy company. While residents would be allowed to share the houses with their families, they are not permitted to sell them.

“Most people want to control their own houses,” said Par Saream, a squatter community representative from Chamkar Mon district. “Even in squatter areas they have the right to sell their houses.”

Hun Sina, a representative from Don Penh district, agreed, adding that without the power to buy and sell their land, they are unlikely to have enough money to ever leave.

Over the next several weeks, potential residents will visit the site. Meetings at Municipal headquarters will also be held next month to discuss concerns and possible changes, the community representatives said.

“They have to follow what the people want and the top makes the changes, not the bottom,” said Par Saream. “That is the only way it will work.”

The representatives also emphasized that people who are interested in moving must be allowed to go and look before making a final decision—an idea shared by other groups working with squatters.

“Its success depends on its voluntary nature,” said Slingsby, “or they will end up with a row of empty houses.”



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